BOOK REVIEWS

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater is a marvellous storyteller. The Raven Boys is a fantastic novel: we have an intriguing storyline, Welsh mythology, magic and curses, and a cast of unforgettable characters. Rather than presenting her readers with ‘heroes and heroines’, paragons of beauty and virtue, Stiefvater’s characters, regardless of their role, are nuanced and messy. The raven boys and Blue can be insecure about themselves, each other, and their future. Their friendship is an intense one, but things are never easy between them. Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters, so that they always retain a certain ambiguity, an enticing air of mystery. Stiefvater style carries a wonderful rhythm. I love the way she plays around with repetition and the way she describes her characters or how animated her scenes are (there are so many secret looks shared between the raven boys).
The Raven Boys is an incredibly atmospheric book that will always have a special place in my heart. Words cannot express how much I love this series.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

After reading an article that called Stephen Graham Jones “the Jordan Peele of horror literature” I was really looking forward to The Only Good Indians. Sadly, Jones’ novel never quite lived up to its eerie premise. Then again, this may the case of ‘it’s not the book, it’s me’ or maybe I have just become inoculated to horror fiction (the last horror books I’ve read—The Bright Lands, Revenge, Empire of Wild—did not elicit any feelings of fear or anxiety in me).


Anyhow, just because I did not find The Only Good Indians to be a particularly good piece of horror doesn’t mean that I would want to discourage others from reading it (if you are thinking of picking up this book I encourage that you read some of the many positives reviews here on GR). So, before I move onto my criticisms, here are some positives.
Jones’ is an undoubtedly imaginative writer. It is refreshing to read stories that do not implement Western myths, and the vengeful deity at the heart of The Only Good Indians is inspired by the Native American myth of Deer Woman. I appreciated the way Jones’ calls out stereotypes about Native Americans (for example by having his characters fear that they will become another ‘statistic’ or that their behaviour will fuel harmful stereotypes). There was also a brief scene in which Jones contrasts the views and attitudes of younger and older members of the Blackfeet tribe. Jones’ use of repetition and onomatopoeias (such as: “the story her stepdad told her isn’t the real story, isn’t the one with feet on the ground and smoke in the air, bang bang bang.”) could also be quite effective.

And now, onto the things I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy (mild-spoilers below).
The pacing…is kind of all over the place. Maybe I approached this book with the wrong exceptions but I wasn’t too keen on the way Jones’ structured his story. The four friends mentioned in the summary are not at the core of this story. We have one chapter focusing on one character, then we spend quite some time with another character, and then we move to two other characters. While I understand that geography was in the way of our deity’s hunt for these men, I do think that weaving their storylines together would have created some more suspense. By the time we move to the last two characters, we know what will happen (and yes, surprise surprise, it does happen). Their stories felt kind of disjointed, their relationship with each other a mere echo. The story never builds a momentum but rather it thrusts us in scenes in which shit has already hit the fan. Take Lewis. From the very first page we meet him, he’s kind of lost it. There is no slow descent into madness. Because we only see him at his worst, I never had time to care for him. There were quite a few chapters that cut off before a scene had reached its zenith, and we are only retroactively told of what came next, so that the narrative lost a lot of its urgency.
The characters…well, they are kind of the same man. They are kind of messy, selfish, not too bright. They articulated themselves in the same exact way, they had no real interests or drive, they kind of just exist. When having sex with his girlfriend Lewis makes a joke about going “bareback” which yes, Lewis himself admits is a “stupid joke” but that this joke re-appears later on…yeah, it didn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic towards him. The only time he showed some depth is when he acknowledges his own conflicted feelings about being with a white woman (and of the possibility of fathering children outside his community). Other than that, Lewis remains a static character. I think that making his story a bit longer, and of slowing down his mental breakdown, would have made him a more dimensional character. The other two guys were mostly forgettable (one is a father, the other one has a girlfriend).
The female characters were hard to digest as they would have been far more at home in a novel published in the 80s. They are physically and emotionally strong, paragons of strength who when needed can transform into sexy temptresses (which begs the question: why would they ever choose to be with or flirt with these four walking-disasters?).
The younger characters were less one-dimensional but they play such small roles that they didn’t really make a huge impact on the story.
Now, onto the most disappoint thing of this book: the horror element. Jones’ horror relies on gory descriptions. I didn’t feel chilled or disturbed by the content of this book. While I do find scenes that depict violent deaths (blood and gore galore) to be somewhat disgusting, for the most part I was unshaken by Jones’ reliance on splatter which would have more in common with B-horror movies than Peele’s Get Out. These explicit scenes were not very shocking or terrifying, in fact, they had the opposite effect as their gaudiness could be unintentionally funny.
The final section was corny as hell, and didn’t really fit with the rest of the novel.

As I previously said, although I did not have a very high opinion of The Only Good Indians I wouldn’t discourage others from reading this novel. I don’t think I would have finished this novel if I’d read the book myself. The audiobook narrator gives a really good performance and he definitely kept me from DNFing this.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Empire of Wild is one of those novels that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. There were a few moments that I actually enjoyed, but these were far too few in between. We have a half-baked storyline, some painfully cartoonish villains, a thinly rendered main character, and an unsatisfying conclusion.


Empire of Wild follows Joan who has recently returned to her Métis community in northern Ontario. After a heated argument with her husband, over the land Joan has inherited from her father, he walks out of their home in a huff…and he doesn’t come back. A year later Joan is still desperately trying to make sense of Victor’s disappearance, hoping to glimpse his face every time she goes outside. Although her family initially helped her look for Victor, they have now moved on and urge her to do the same.
When Joan walks into a revival tent for laughs, she doesn’t expect to see her husband. Except the man, a reverend, doesn’t know who she is, and calls himself Eugene Wolff.
Ajean, an older woman from Joan’s community, believes that the Rogarou, a wolf-like creature, may have something to do with what happened to Victor. Joan, convinced that Eugene is Victor, decides to ‘take’ him back, and the person behind the revival isn’t too happy about it.

I really liked the scenes with Ajean. I liked her no-nonsense attitude and her knowledge of Métis lore. Sadly, she only plays a minor role in the story, and the narrative mostly switches between Joan, Victor, and the two ‘bad’ guys. Joan’s nephew had the potential of being a likeable character (he feels left out from his immediate family and has a quirky obsession with Johnny Cash) but there were things he said or did that didn’t really ring true (and made him sound like an older man or a possessive lover). Although the book summary makes it sound as if he really helps Joan in her ‘quest’ to take Victor back, he mainly looks up stuff on the internet for her (and he does this quite later on in the narrative…which is weird given that Joan should have wanted this type of information way earlier in the story).
Joan’s family are also largely overlooked, which is a pity as it would have been nice to read about Joan’s relationship with her mother and siblings. They have two meals together, and that’s about it. Their first meal actually gave us an impression of their dynamics and disagreements (when discussing their job prospects), but this scene was far too fleeting, and I wish the story had remained more focused on Joan’s family.
There were chapters focused on Victor, and these were very short and intentionally confusing (he is the woods). In a way these chapters weren’t actually about him. He’s so out of it that we don’t really gleam anything about what kind of person he is. I think that the story would have benefited from some flashbacks, that way we could have seen Victor and Joan together. But we don’t. And because of that I didn’t really care for their relationship. Joan misses him, sure. Often, however, she seemed to miss having sex with him—which, fair enough—more than him.
After seeing him once at the revival, during this ‘first’ meeting she’s somewhat drunk, she is absolutely certain that this reverend is Victor. She doesn’t wait for proof but immediately plans to win him back by seducing him. Like, really? She doesn’t seem worried about the fact that he could have been brainwashed or possessed, or that he has amnesia. Nah. After this confusing encounter she knows that this man is her husband (I mean, I wish she could have at least considered the twin brother theory) and rather than doing some extensive research, she’s all ‘I’m going to wear my best panties’. Which, yeah. Great plan.
For reasons unbeknown to me, the narrative also follows the two baddies. Rather than making them more believable, these sections consolidated my not so positive view of them. They were painfully clichéd. The ‘evil’ son of German immigrants who possesses only vices (he’s either having, just about to, or finished having sex). The woman is a psychopath who is jealous, petty, and cruel. I didn’t particularly like the ‘slut-shaming’ tone the narrative had when focused on this character.
Speaking of ‘shaming’, most of the time both overweight and underweight characters are described with a certain acerbic or mocking tone. The three young-ish women who have most page time (Joan, Ivy, and Cecile) are particularly disparaging towards each other’s bodies. And part of me really wanted to shake them for it. Given the circumstances they are in, would Joan really have the time to whinge about Joan’s thigh-gap?
I think this book could have been far more interesting and thought-provoking. I wish Dimaline could have explored more in-depth the effects that colonialism, capitalism, religious institutions, the Canadian government have on a community like Joan’s. But she merely scratches the surface by mentioning that indigenous people are being manipulated/forced into giving their lands away. And for the most part the narrative seemed to imply that only cartoonishly bad men are responsible for this.
Joan was an underwhelming character. I only really rooted for her in one scene, where she punches someone who 100% deserved to be punched. Other than that…I found her quite superficial and unlikeable.
The novel is also really obsessed with Joan’s ‘panties’…1) I hate that word 2) why mention them so many times?
The dramatic confrontation at the end was predictable and didn’t really make sense (what’s new?!).

Sadly, this really didn’t work for me. A good premise is let down by an uneventful storyline, one-dimensional characters, and an occasionally cringey prose. If there is a sequel, I will be steering clear of it.
Then again it was refreshing to read a story centred around Métis community that has a supernatural twist. So, even if I didn’t particularly care for this novel, I wouldn’t discourage other readers from picking this one up.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir by Wayétu Moore

81gq3RikG+L.jpgThe Dragons, the Giant, the Women is a deeply heartfelt and lyrical memoir. Wayétu Moore’s luminous prose conveys the horrors of the First Liberian Civil War through the uncomprehending eyes of a child. At the age five Moore ‘s existence is irrevocably altered. Her family is forced to flee their home in Monrovia. Her father tries to shield his daughters from the violence and death they encounter on the road to ‘safety’ (for example he tells them that the sound they keep hearing—gunfire—is made by drums, or that the dead people on the ground are ‘sleeping’).
While Moore doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed caused by this civil war, she renders these events as she experienced them, when she was not fully aware of what was truly happening. She weaves a fairy-tale of sorts, with dragons (those who played a prominent role in the civil war), a giant (her father, her protector), and the women (her mother, a young rebel girl) whose acts of bravery ensured the safety of Moore and her sisters. I was moved by the way in which Moore’s family stayed united as their world crumbled.
After Moore’s mother (who had been studying in New York and therefore was cut off from her husband and children after the war broke out) finds a rebel soldier who could smuggle them across the border to Sierra Leone, the Moore family move to America.
In recounting her childhood Moore details the way in which she was made fully aware of her status of ‘outsider’ in America. Racism, colourism, a sense of disconnect towards a culture that treats you as other, all of these things make Moore feel like she doesn’t belong. What she witnessed as a child too, haunts her. In search for answers she flies back to Liberia. The narrative shifts then to her mother’s perspective and Moore perfectly captures a mother’s voice.
The Dragons, the Giant, the Women details Moore’s painful and unresolved past. Yet, however sobering her story is, readers are bound to be dazzled by the lore that shapes her tale.
Moore navigates the aftermath of Liberia’s civil war, her family’s migration to the U.S., her own relationship towards Liberia and her sense of displacement. This is a beautifully written and powerful story, one that recounts a family’s arduous journey to safety, the separation and losses they experience, and the love and courage that brings them back together.
LitHub has recently published an interview with Wayétu Moore in which she discusses this memoir: Wayétu Moore on What It Means to Tell “Our Story”.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

It isn’t surprising that American Gods is regarded as one of the genre-bending novels of all time.
Over the course of 500 pages Neil Gaiman deftly blends together fantasy, sci-fi, horror, noir, myths, history, theology, as well as physical, spiritual, and emotional road-trip. The end result is an incredibly imaginative novel, on that is quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

In the preface to the tenth anniversary edition Gaiman describes his novel as ‘meandering’: “I wanted it to be a number of things. I wanted to write a book that was big and odd and meandering, and I did and it was.” It is indeed meandering, wonderfully so. Gaiman’s consistently entertaining storytelling more than makes up for it. Also, given how many different storylines and characters there are in American Gods, it’s safe to say that I was never bored.

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

Summarising this novel isn’t easy. The first time I read it I didn’t know much about it so I found myself experiencing a lot of ‘what the f*ck is going’ moments. This second time, even if I knew what was coming and where Shadow’s story was headed, I still managed to get lost in Gaiman’s heady prose.
The novel’s protagonist, Shadow, gets out of prison and is hired by the mysterious and relentlessly charismatic Mr. Wednesday. We soon realise that Shadow’s new boss is an endlessly scheming conman, and not quite human.

What follows is an epic journey in which Shadow meets many disgruntled and modernity weary gods and deities, some of whom share snippets of their history or lore with Shadow, while others remain far more unknowable. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters recounting their arrival to America. From heroic battles and bloody sacrifices to tales of worship and faith that span centuries and cultures, these sections were thoroughly interesting.

Over the course of his road trip Shadow comes across a lot of weird stuff. We have the sense that these encounters are leading to something far more big. Yet, Gaiman keeps his cards close to his chest, and it is only after many many pages that we start to understand where the story is leading Shadow, and us, towards.
There are plenty of things that will keep us engaged in Shadow’s story. A dead wife, coin tricks, cons, sex (with divine beings…so things get pretty freaky), some horrific scenes (of slavery, of war, of death), satire, a small town which gives some serious Twin Peaks vibe, a hubbub of different cultures and voices…and so much more. There is also an ongoing juxtaposition between the past and present, ancient customs and modernity, old lore and modern believes which provided some serious food for thought.

Gaiman presents us with a narrative that is wickedly funny, frequently mischievous, and always brimming with energy. I loved the way he writes about myths and how distinctive and morally ambiguous his characters are. As interesting and beguiling as the various gods and deities are, once again I found myself caring the most for Shadow.
Gaiman’s dialogues and scenes too are memorable and compelling. And while his narrative does wander into obscure and mystical terrains, it always held my undivided attention.
American Gods gives its readers a bonanza of flavours. It is funny, moving, clever, and constantly surprising.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin — book review

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Rusting Earth…The Fifth Season is a spectacular read.

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all.”

Reviewing The Fifth Season is no small feat. We have N.K. Jemisin’s writing style, her intricate and all-encompassing world-building, and her unflinching and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Even upon a second reading, I find myself simply in awe of what Jemisin has achieved with this novel. Although her novel interrogates themes that are often at the core of many sci-fis and fantasy books, and its racial, social, and geo-politics carry echoes of our own world. Some of its imagery and ideas brought to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as some of Studio Ghibli’s films. And given this novel focus on nature one could see it as a work of environmental fantasy. Yet The Fifth Season, with its unprecedented structure and its intricate constructions, is a novel like no other.

“According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.”

By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin is able to present her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. In spite of their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene, that is they possess orogeny, the ability to manipulate earth and stone. In this world, known as the Stillness, orogenes are seen as dangerous abominations. Yet, given the frequent earthquakes and the continent’s mercurial weather, orogenes do come in handy. The constant othering experienced by orogenes makes readers question whether a society such as this should even survive the end of the world. After all life in the Stillness is not just. Here your second name indicates your use-caste (which is inherited by one’s same-sex parent) and the only way to avoid these strict and predetermined hierarchies is to become commless, and be consequently cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Jemisin’s novel asks whether a society that is conditioned by such class differentiations and that maintains a systematic system of oppression and injustice should be considered ‘civilised’ to begin with. Readers, alongside some of the characters, begin to see Father Earth’s rage (which according to stonelore is the reason why there are so many earthquakes and environmental disasters) as justified.

“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.”

In the opening of the novel we witness the destruction of the most powerful city in the Stillness, Yumenes. Its obliteration opens a rift in the earth and causes the start of a season, a merciless winter that is likely to last for centuries. For Essun, a forty-year old woman living in a small comm, the world is ending in more ways than one. After a terrible act of violence in which Essun’s not yet three-year old son Uche is killed by his own father, and her husband, Essun is forced to leave her comm in a desperate attempt to find her daughter. Hope, love, and revenge spur her onwards as she embarks on a desperate pursuit of her husband. The start of a brutal season has forced many into leaving their comms and Essun is not the only one to brave the treacherous landscape of the Stillness. Hatred, confusion, and guilt follow her as she attempts to catch up to her husband and daughter. Soon however she finds two companions, both outsiders of sorts, and their presence makes the survival of each day easier. Although Essun’s chapters (told through a 2nd person narration) are weighed down by her grief and trauma, her love for her daughter and the fragile connections she forms with her two companions alleviate the tragic tones of her story.
By comparison Damaya’s chapters retain a sense of innocence in spite of the ill-treatment and manipulations she is repeatedly subjected to. Once her parents discover that she possess orogeny, Damaya, a child from the Nomidlats, is taken to the Fulcrum, a paramilitary order that ‘trains’ orogenes. In the Fulcrum not only does Damaya have to learn to control her orogeny but she has to survive the dangerous contempt of her classmates. The Guardians, an order that controls the orogenes, instil fear and compliance in the young orogene. We read of the way in which this environment affects Damaya and the way in which it slowly yet surely skewers her worldview so that she begins to see herself as someone worth hating.
Last but not least there is Syenite, a fourth-ringer member of the Fulcrum who is assigned to various jobs around the Stillness and whose latest assignment is not as easy as she’d hoped. Partnered with Alabaster, a ten-ringer who was born into the Fulcrum, Syenite hopes to earn a ‘ring’ after the completion of this mission. While Syenite seems to have grown adjusted to the ways of the Fulcrum, and of the way in which orogene are treated by their society, when she is implicitly ordered to make more orogene, a seed of resistance takes root in her. Her story shows readers the politics of the Stillness: from the socioeconomics of the comm Syenite and Alabaster are sent to, to the larger political landscape of the Stillness. Syenite retains a hope for a future that is different, one in which orogene are not oppressed, weaponised, and discriminated against.
In each chapter we read of different types of survival. What Essun, Damaya, and Syenite experience is not easy to read. They are used, abused, controlled, othered, and persecuted by a system of power. Yet Jemisin doesn’t let her novel or her characters be completely obscured by the bleakness of life in the Stillness. The connections they form with others provide us with many emotionally powerful and heart-stirring moments.
This novel confronts so many serious themes and issues that it is difficult to pinpoint some of them. One could read this a story of survival, a testimony of humankind’s ability to adapt, or a tale that focuses on the impossibility that is maintaining one’s moral integrity or sense of self in a world that marginalises, enslaves, and oppresses those that are deemed different or undesirable. There is an urgency in the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, one that made me read with my heart in my throat. The constant sense of danger, of a catastrophe on the horizon, made this novel hard to put down (even the second time round).

“The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”

One of the reasons why The Fifth Season has such compelling narratives is Jemisin’s jaw-dropping world-building. There is so much depth and richness in her world that it is all too easy to visualise it. She provides us with stunning descriptions describing the geography of the Stillness (its various landscapes and formations to its weather) so that it feels as real as it does for the characters who inhabit it. Jemisin seamlessly integrates throughout her narratives a lot of the Stillness’ history. We are given an impression of this world through its stonelore—which brings together history, science and myth and informs many of the customs of the people of the Stillness— and through the knowledge of the various characters.
From their beliefs to their language(s) and traditions, Jemisin meticulously constructs this world in a way that always leaves us wanting more. She allows her world to retain a mysterious allure so that she can later on surprise us with certain revelations.
There are a lot of horrifying things in the Stillness. From the seasons to the caste-system…what becomes apparent is that there are few safe places in this land.
Throughout the course of her novel Jemisin seems to be asking her characters and us whether we should consider nature, and Father Earth, to be the villains of her story given the destruction and pain they cause or if the fault lays on the people.

Breathtaking world-building aside, we also have Jemisin’s specular writing. Her prose can be in turns elegiac and gritty, graceful and direct. Through her razor-sharp narration she captures the incongruent reality of living in a world which seems hell-bent on killing you. Jemisin’s magnetic writing style provides us with plenty of arresting scenes, clever expressions, and mind-boggling descriptions of the orogenes’ powers. Time and again she juxtaposes destruction with creation portraying horrific moments in a hauntingly beautiful way.

Final verdict:
This novel is a triumph. The crème de la crème of speculative fiction.

 

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor — book review

51vdoCLo6NL.jpgStrange the Dreamer is a wonderfully imaginative novel. Meditations and discussions on storytelling, dreams, and myths are not only embedded in the narrative but shape the very way in which the two main characters view their world and themselves.

“Lazlo owned nothing, not one single thing, but from the first, the stories felt like his own hoard of gold.”

It feels strange to like a book I initially gave up on.Usually<, I don’ give book second chances. I first tried reading Strange the Dreamer two years ago and…it’s safe to say—or write—that I was less than impressed. I tried reading one or two chapters but disliked Laini Taylor’s flowery metaphors. This time round, for some reason or other, I really appreciated Taylor’s prose. Maybe I should start giving more books second chances…

In many ways Strange the Dreamer adheres to many conventions of the fantasy genre…we have our orphan hero, those who are considered ‘different’ (in this case they also happen to have blue skin), a wannabe Draco Malfoy sort of bully, a quest, two star-crossed lovers…yet, much of the lore and imagery within the narrative of Strange the Dreamer struck me as undeniably unique.
The worldbuilding is simply stunning. The lands and cities within Strange the Dreamer are given vivid and in-depth descriptions. Weep plays a central role within this narrative. We learn, alongside our hero, of its environment, history, language, and customs. This information is spread throughout the course of the novel, so that Weep always retains its fascinating and mysterious appeal.
The two main characters are very compelling. Although Lazlo Strange might appear as the ‘usual’ orphaned fantasy protagonist, he possesses many characteristics that set him apart. His kindness and genuine thirst for knowledge will make readers all the more involved in his quest for Weep.
Sarai—whose powers are both a gift and a curse—provides us with a different point of view. The interactions between Lazlo and Sarai were extremely sweet. While their instant ‘connection’ might ring ‘insta-love’ bells, it did not come across as forced. In spite of their different positions and backgrounds they are both lonely.
Taylor has a beautiful way with words. Her prose has a captivating rhythm that calls to mind storytelling. Her vibrant descriptions add a richness to the characters’ background and there are plenty of luscious phrases sprinkled throughout her text.
My only criticisms are towards the secondary characters (who seemed a bit one dimensional) and the occasionally heavy-handed aesthetics (we do not need to be constantly reminded of how our main characters’ look).
Still, I’m glad I gave this book a second chance! The storyline was intriguing, its discussions on and dynamics between divinities and humans were compelling, and the two main characters are extremely likeable.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy — book review

Untitled drawing.jpg“I listened as Sibylla told me for the third or fourth or fifth time, about something that happened to her a thousand years ago and that might have been funny then, but, clearly, you had to have been there.”

The Oracle of Cumae is a humorous tale that might appeal to readers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown series, or even books by Rick Riordan. While I enjoyed how witty and playful the narrative could be I was also aware of the various mistakes punctuating the novel.

“Actually, I’m rather hoping for Purgatory.”
“Impossible. Suicides go to Hell. Everyone knows that!”
“I’m hoping to negotiate my position.”

The story is a fun romp that has plenty of comical moments and diverting scenarios. The title character is portrayed in a refreshing way and I do think that the narrative should have focused more on her rather than the people from Mariuccia Umbellino’s youth. There are amusing running gags which create a sense of familiarity between the readers and the story, such as when Mariuccia or her family explain to outsiders that their local pastor is blind, illiterate, and can’t speak Latin:

“He can’t read?” the Prior exclaimed. “How can he say Mass?”
“He acts it out,” said Papa.
“It’s very entertaining,” Mama added. “The children love it.”

The humour is the biggest strength of the story. There are some brilliant back and forths which really complemented the setting and emphasised the characters’ various eccentricities. At times the humour could be quite silly and light:

“Look!” Cesare cried. “He smiled! His very first smile!”
“Actually I am told that babies don’t really smile until about the age of two months,” said Pellicola drily. “It’s probably just gas.”

And in other occasions it could become closer to that of a black comedy:

“Don’t ask me. You know full well that I was an only child. ”
“As was I,” reflected Dr. Pellicola a little dreamily. “No, wait. There was a sister, but she ate something in the garden and died. Belladonna, I believe it was. I think I put her up to it, but, as I was only four at the time, I was forgiven. Even then I was fascinated by medicinal herbs!”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this zestful narrative style. There was a vivacious energy underlining each of the various characters’ interactions which made the story all the more engaging. It was fun to see how Melissa Hardy applies a modern humour to a historical setting.

“I tell you what. Go commit your sin. Come back next Wednesday at this time. Confess, and I’ll absolve you. That’s the way the system works. Now, if you are quite through…?”

Hardy also makes interesting references to a lot of historical anecdotes and places, incorporating certain historical events and locations into her tale (such as the mummies of the Chiesa dei Morti).
The story itself wouldn’t hold up without this abundance of humour as it is what brings the characters into focus. The storyline could have had been more clear-cut and with a more satisfactory inclusion of the oracle. I would have preferred following Mariuccia during her a larger chunk of her life rather than having the narrative focusing on a year or two when she was a teenager. More could have been made of the story as it had a lot of potentially interesting elements, it seems however that much of the narrative stems from a not fully sketched out idea.

There were also a lot of mistakes and inaccuracies which detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book.
➜ The story opens in Italy during the late 19th century (1896 to be precise) and Mariuccia Umbellino, who has just turned ninety nine, calls a priest in order to confess some of her secrets. Although she says that she worked for Bacigalupo & Sons for fifty years (“The business that I preserved and built upon for fifty years”) implying that she must have started working for this company before the 1850s, the narrative later states that Bacigalupo & Sons was founded in the “early nineteen hundreds”, a period of time that is often used to refer to the early 1900s as opposed to the early 1800s.
➜While I don’t have a problem with writers outside of Italy writing about Italy or setting their book in Italy I do get frustrated by the lack of research that some of these authors pay to the Italian language. Google is quite a handy tool and it isn’t difficult to double check the Italian equivalent to certain English terms. Often English-speaking authors will throw untranslated Italian words into their narratives as a way of making their story more believable and quaint. Time and again these authors will use Mama and Papa when referring to Italian characters’ mothers and fathers. Yet, Mama and Papa have no place in the Italian dictionary. They belong to British shows like Downton Abbey. Italians use Mamma and Papà. In Italian Papa means Pope. Not the same as Papà. I actually looked up online a historical dictionary ( http://www.bdcrusca.it/scaffale.asp ) to double-check the period’s terms for Dad and Mum and it turns out that Mariuccia would have used Mamma for Mum and Babbo or Padre for her father.
➜There other Italian words that are misspelled such as ‘schiffo’ instead of ‘schifo’; ‘respetto’ instead of ‘rispetto’; and ‘fritti mistos’ should have been ‘fritti misti’.

When writing about a different culture to your own writers and their editors should ensure that they are at least using the correct words (if they insist on implementing untranslated terms) and names (many of the names in this story seemed odd but given that this is ‘historical’ I was willing to look past them).

In spite of these irritating mistakes, I was entertained by this novel and I’m looking forward to read more by this author.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang


Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
★★★★✰ 4 that-was-bloody-intense stars

This novel is incredibly engaging. I found myself desperate to read it as often as I could, because I was involved by the story Kuang has so vividly rendered.

The storyline might seem a bit predictable at first – orphan goes to a special school, discovers ‘uncanny’ abilities, yadda yaddabut the way in which Kuang delivers this trope-y story made it seem anything but clichéd.

It might sound daft but one of the aspects that pulled me into this story is that Kuang made me believe in Rin and her tumultuous and often hostile world. The many physical and inner conflicts she faces made me deeply weary. I grew increasingly apprehensive. Kuang does not sugar coat the brutality of war and the inevitable horrors brought by such conflicts. Yet, Kuang’s prose could deliver such beautiful and elegant phrases that I could not find anything she wrote distasteful. Her style would often come across as simple but it is this apparent simplicity that makes Kuang’s words all the more effective. There is a raw almost visceral aspect to her writing that makes it hard not to be affected by what she writes of.
The Poppy War makes you constantly re-think and re-evaluate what you read of.

As much as I loved this book there are a few things that I thought could have been “better” or that I hope can be more developed in the next instalments.

Here are a few thoughts:

✔The way in which Kung depicts a moving body is simply captivating. I was in awe of her descriptions of combat. Even when during these fighting scenes the “eyes” seem to be a bit overdone (everyone seems to have very arresting eyes, especially those who fight well or are shamans).

Rin, this girl, this young woman, frustrated the hell out of me. She is a act first, think later, kind of person. Also, you know how some say that there is no such thing as a stupid question? Well, I disagree, because Rin asks a helluva of stupid questions. And the she is ‘stunned’ or suprised by the unfavourable reactions these often insubordinate questions illicit. She enragers her peers, and her superiors, with her words and her obtuseness. Yet, in spite of my not liking her or her attitude, I still cared for her. Especially since she seems to be treated like a pinata by most of the characters.

And yes, I do mean that she is treated as something that should be bashed about. Her mentors are not upfront enough, pushing her to make stupid decisions. Her friends…well, I don’t think that there is one healthy relationship or friendship in this book. ,b>The relationships she has verge on or are of an abusive (physical and non) nature. Given the world Rin lives in it’s hardly surprising that this should be the case….still
The path that she takes feels sadly unavoidable. It’s refreshing to read about a female character who longs for power….but the damage caused by Rin’s newfound thirst for revenge…well…mmmh…there is no coming back from that.

✖A lot of characters tell Rin the classic “you don’t know what I’ve been through” line. I mean, they are all living through a war, so I don’t think Rin should just let others bemoan their own tragedies, especially since before this new explosion of violence, Rin was already an outcast.

The few female characters that make an appearance are all very negative depictions of femininity. They are shrill and or unnecessary mean, especially towards – surprise surprise – Rin. They seemed very “flat”. They were either jealous or callous, treating Rin in a cold or aggressive manner. Hopefully new female characters in the following instalments will change this but…

✖I think the novel would have benefited from having a few more descriptions of the characters’ surroundings. I know it is an action focused novel but a more delineated landscape would have made Rin’s world all the more vivid.

Overall, I recommend this very much to both historical and fantasy fans. If you love the trope of the “tragic hero/ine” whose thirst for revenge and power bring about their own destruction…look no further. Rin is an Anakin Skywalker in the makings…

I know quite a lot of people are worried by the “trigger warnings” but this book is never gratuitously violent. The violence depicted is both brutal and necessary, and because of it, we can better understand Rin and those around her.

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

“They dare not follow, thought Vasya. They fear the forest after dark. And then, darkly: They are wise.”

The Bear and The Nightingale is an enchanting tale imbued with Russian folklore and traditions. Arden has crafted a story that abounds with fantastical creatures and mystical prophecies that will entice the reader from the very first pages:

“In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip.”

Set in a vividly rendered feudal Russia, The Bear and The Nightingale follows Vasilisa Petrovna the youngest child of a wealthy boyar, Pyotr Vladimirovich, in the north of Russia, who is predestined to be the heir of old magic. Vasilisa, who can see the spirits and creatures that crowd her house and neighbouring forest, grows into an untamed and fierce child feared by the villagers and loathed by her step-mother Anna, who is also able to see magical beings. Unlike her step-daughter, however, Anna fears these creatures and it is her religious zeal that will bring a new priest into the Vladimirovich household, Father Konstantin, who sees it as his duty to eradicate the locals paganistic customs. The strain generated by the clash of these diverse beliefs soon spirals out of control forcing Vasilisa into action.

Arden has created an endearing protagonist: Vasilisa’s resilience and bravery are shown throughout the novel. She will fight for her own freedom and to protect the ones around her. There is a focus on her struggle against the restrictions given by her gender, as well as, on the tension between duty and choice. Her relationship with her family is another vital aspect of her story, especially the bond she shares with her older brother Alyosha and her younger half-sister Irina. Arden depicts a realistic family portrait which sees a well-meaning father, a brusque yet kind grandmotherly nurse and a few protective older brothers who like teasing each other.

These interesting and relatable characters feature in a tangible medieval setting that is enriched by Arden’s graceful descriptions. Her expressive and poetical rendition of an unforgiving yet tantalizing landscape bring into being an incredibly atmospheric tale. Her lyrical prose and beautiful allegories, such as “the years slipped by like leaves,” and “the clouds lay like wet wool above trees”, are in resonance with her richly evocative world. The author has painted an immersive and magical tale redolent of old lore and populated by poignant characters. The Bear and The Nightingale is a lavishly written and alluring fairytale that entwines traditional motifs of the genre with an original and fascinating storyline.

I would definitely recommend this to fans of The Night Circus or The Golem and the Jinni which also combine accurate historical setting with the otherworldly. Or if you particularly enjoy fairy-tale-esque stories I would suggest writers such as Catherynne M. Valente – author of Deathless and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – and Kate Forsyth. The clash between pagan traditions and non reminded me of The Witches of New York.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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